Ryan Kim poses with his research poster at the USC Environmental Justice Youth Fellowship in August. (Photo courtesy of Ryan Kim)


Column: USC Environmental Justice Youth Fellowship empowers young environmental justice leaders

<a href="https://highschool.latimes.com/author/ryankim8092/" target="_self">Ryan Kim</a>

Ryan Kim

October 3, 2023
In a unique fellowship, students showcased their research posters on the final day of the USC Environmental Justice Youth Fellowship on August 19 after learning about environmental justice for a year.

The EJ Youth Fellowship is a new yearlong program that brings together 15 young environmental justice leaders from Los Angeles/Southern California between the ages of 14 and 20.

The program director, Jill Johnston, worked with Janelle Vidal, the program specialist, to create this program.

“This approach helps to address health disparities in socially disadvantaged population groups, distribute and translate research findings to community members, and equitably involve them in the research process from beginning to end,” Vidal said. “We wanted to expand on that and provide students a space where they could discuss their own lived experiences and conduct their research.”

Janelle Vidal, USC Environmental Justice Youth Fellowship program specialist, presents a lesson about research posters. (Photo by Ryan Kim)

On the first Wednesday of each month, we participated in a hybrid structure, holding virtual meetings focused on environmental topics accompanied by monthly assignments. Their summer workshops, however, were held in person so that we could participate in interactive sessions.

In the winter of 2022 and the fall of 2023, I attended the USC EJ Youth Fellowship, where I learned to contribute to community-driven research and learn about social justice. During my time here, I learned about air pollution, diesel gas and how to bring community engagement in projects and research. 

I learned more about the environment and community through the assignments, such as making a story map of the health and nature of our neighborhood, our ideal society, and the lifecycles of water bottles, backpacks, and books we use daily. Even though it was virtual, speakers such as James Rojas (An urban planner and founder of Place It!) or USC students, staff and faculty taught us about community throughout the months. 

One of my favorite assignments was soil sampling since we visited the Health Department of Population and Public Health Sciences, Keck School of Medicine of USC, and sampled the soil while learning how lead soil contamination can affect communities. Another example was the air sampling we got to try out with devices given to us, which was fun as we wandered around the campus, testing the air to see how polluted the air could be.

As the program started to end, our final assignment was to create a research poster on a topic we wanted to showcase and why they were important to us. Vidal and Dr. Johnston chose to make the final assignment a research poster because it allowed us to interact with our audience by showcasing their research process visually. In addition to improving our presentation skills, we learned how to communicate research to an audience that wasn’t entirely familiar with it.

Ryan Kim, right, and a fellow student Alexis Martin, left, during graduation of the USC Environmental Justice Youth Fellowship program. (Photo courtesy of Ryan Kim)

The issues everyone chose were diverse and unique, from air pollution, lead soil contamination, water contamination, energy transition to renewable sources, single-use plastics or microplastics. In my poster, I addressed the issue of microplastics, which are broken-down plastics that are smaller pieces than 5 millimeters. 

Although the research poster was difficult at first due to the individual nature of the assignment, it was a lot of fun researching the effects of microplastics on our planet. I had interviews with Southern California Coastal Water Research Project and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to achieve the impact I wanted for my research poster. I also surveyed to get data about the public’s perspective on microplastics, who were all concerned about microplastics and the impact they could have on us. I also collected some microplastics I found at Santa Monica’s beach to create a pie chart. 

As I showcased my poster on August 19, it was pressurizing since I didn’t want to mess up on what I gathered. Despite this, I grew more confident as the audience was respectful, listening to what I accumulated and giving me time to gather my thoughts and continue. 

Everyone else’s poster was impressive, as they were distinctive as they discovered different ways to present their research or data. I loved seeing the aspects people used, as each one served unique purposes about their topics. 

“Dr. Johnston and I are incredibly proud of everyone and their amazing research projects. All of the projects were also very personal to the fellows,” Vidal said. “Many were also unfamiliar with the scientific research poster structure. Despite those challenges, the fellows put together amazing projects and engaged in important research.”

This program is a marvelous experience, especially for those who crave to take action in environmental justice. For more information and other research posters, check out the EJ Youth Fellowship and view the research posters and presentations here.